Coal Liquefication. What it means for your gas tank and the environment

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Coal Liquefication is a controversial technology that turns coal into a high carbon liquid. The resulting fuel can be substituted for gasoline in cars, trains, and planes. It’s controversial because the process that produces liquefied coal is energy intensive and it releases a lot of carbon dioxide during production and again when it’s burned. All told, a gallon of liquified coal has about twice the carbon footprint of a gallon of gas.

To put it another way, a Prius burning liquified coal will release as much carbon as a Hummer burning regular gasoline. Many environmental groups oppose Coal Liquification. If liquid coal replaced gasoline at the pump, the American auto fleet would have to become twice as fuel efficient just to maintain current CO2 emissions. Increased coal use could also accelerate environmental damage from coal mining.

Yet, there are reasons why Coal to Liquid (CTL) conversion is getting a lot of attention. As the price of oil hovers around $100 a barrel, there’s intense pressure to develop alternative energy sources. Coal mining employs a lot of people (~80,000 in the United States) and creating an industry that converts coal to fuel could create a lot of new jobs at a time when the US economy is sluggish.

Another reason why CTL is getting renewed attention – liquefied coal is a domestic energy source. Every gallon of liquid coal would replace a gallon of gasoline – and you may have noticed that we’re having trouble with several oil producing countries. There are balance-of-trade concerns that reinforce energy independence – lately our trade deficit has been one factor driving down the value of the US Dollar. The buying power of the petrodollar has experienced a sustained decline since 2003.

At the beginning of 2003, one euro bought one US dollar. Eighteen months ago, it bought $1.20. Now it is pushing $1.50, and there is no reason to think that it will stop there.

Despite climate concerns and technological hurdles, the US Air Force is already flying some planes using liquefied coal. And the technology is supported by some surprising faces:

Illinois basin coal has more untapped energy potential than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined. Senator Obama believes it is crucial that we invest in technologies to use these resources to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

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obewan January 8, 2008 at 2:43 pm

Liquid coal made with carbon sequestration can be as clean or cleaner than conventional oil fuels. Carbon sequestration has already been proven at Kinder Morgan in TX where over 1 billion cu ft of co2 is captured daily and pumped underground for permanent storage. We only have 50 years max left on the oil supply according to the DOE experts – less according to the worlds leading geophysicists. There will be 9 billion mouths to feed, and mass economic chaos will ensue long before that when the shortages hit. We need to exercise every available option to prolong the world’s survival. Ethanol can only supply 10%. Electric for everything is not feasible. Biodiesel is similar to ethanol. Both will add to food shortages. There is a 200 year coal supply that can take up the slack while sources like hydro phonic algae are developed. Liquid coal can be made with recycled water, and the land can be redeveloped into farms, forests, and lakes with minimal environmental damage – I have seen the photos of redeveloped coalmines.

Steve Watkins January 9, 2008 at 8:34 pm

Electric for most things is very feasable. In fact, it’s hard to think of much of anything that electric wont work for.

Biodiesel is not similar to ethanol, the yield is much greater and it can be produced from a lot of sources that do not add to food shortages. We have a lot of farmland in this country than can grow biodiesel crops that is sitting unused.

Anything that involves pulling carbon out of the ground and using it for fuel should be avoided if at all possible.

Bob May 9, 2008 at 6:34 am

If liquified coal has twice the carbon footprint as gas, then it’s about the same as ethanol (according to Science magazine). And, we all know that ethanol is as grand as the second coming. So, lets do coal liquification.

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